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Koh Seow Chuan is the founder and senior consultant of DP Architects whose work with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay earned the 2005 Royal Institute of British Architects' Worldwide Design Award and the 2006 President's Design Award. He is also a distinguished philatelist and avid collector of historical artefacts whose donations to the National Library Board have resulted in the creation of the Koh Seow Chuan Collection, providing researchers with insight into the social history of Singapore, particularly in 19th and early 20th century. In 2009, he was bestowed the Distinguished Patron of Heritage Award for his contributions towards the preservation of local heritage, history and the arts.
Koh Seow Chuan was born in 1939 in Singapore. His parents were China-born—his father having migrated from Gulangyu, Xiamen, to Singapore with Koh’s grandfather and uncles in the early 1930s. The Kohs set up gold bullion trading businesses in Southeast Asia, with Koh’s grandfather, second uncle and father (the eldest son) starting a company in Singapore while his other uncles started companies in Malaysia and Indonesia. Koh’s parents and grandfather were staunch adult Protestant converts. As a result, Koh, the youngest of 11 children, grew up immersed in both business and Protestant Christianity, influences whose innate pragmatism helped to shape Seow Chuan’s growth in adulthood.
At the age of four, Koh became fascinated with the art works on postage stamps. However his artistic interest was that of a collector rather than an art-maker, and a young Koh started collecting stamps passionately. At first it was a childhood hobby that continued throughout his school years in Monk’s Hill Primary School and Anglo-Chinese School where he started the first stamp club around 1953. Then in his late 20s, it grew into an investment-hobby when he started building a valuable collection with historical significance.
In 1974, he and other philately enthusiasts formed the Inter-Asia Philately Federation of which he was general secretary. That marked the start of Koh’s many philatelic association posts including president of the Singapore Stamp Club (1969–1976), president of the Association of Singapore Philatelists (1989–2002), chairman of the Singapore Philatelic Museum (2001–2005) and president of the Federation of International Philately (2002–2006). He also became the first Singaporean to sign the Roll of Distinguished Philatelists by the British Philatelic Federation in 1992, and won several philatelic awards such as 1989’s Large Gold Medal at the Paris World Stamp Exhibition for his collection of Southeast Asian stamps and the 1996 Grand Prix National Award at the World Philatelic Exhibition in Canada for a collection of 19th-century stamps of Canada.
Koh’s stamp collecting led to him also becoming an avid collector of historical artefacts and art works. By the 2000s, after being a member of the National Heritage Board in 1997, he had amassed a large collection of historical documents, photographs, postcards, maps, antique books, art works and cultural and historical artefacts dating back to the 1800s. He made donations of 150 paintings by Singapore artist Lim Tze Peng in 2003 and 63 paintings by Singapore artist Wong Keen in 2006 to the Singapore Art Museum. In 2007 and 2008, he donated over 90,000 historic photographs and postcards to the Singapore Philatelic Museum and more than 2,700 historical items from the 19th and early 20th century to the National Library Board, resulting in the creation of the Koh Seow Chuan Collection which today provides researchers with insight into the social history of Singapore.
In 1971, Koh received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) for his service to the community. He received the Patron of the Arts award in 2004 and the Patron of Heritage award in 2006. In 2009, Koh received the Distinguished Patron of Heritage Award by the National Heritage Board for his outstanding contributions towards the preservation of Singapore heritage, history and the arts. The same year, he was appointed the Chairman of Singapore’s National Art Gallery (now National Gallery Singapore), a position he held till 2013. In 2012, Koh received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Lintang) [Public Service Star (Bar)].
Koh also became a co-founder of one of Singapore’s largest and most established architectural firms in 1967. He had pursued architectural studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia and graduated in 1963. Four years later, with partners William Lim and Tay Kheng Soon, he founded the Design Partnership. It was renamed DP Architects in 1975 and expanded to include offices abroad and large-scale iconic projects throughout Singapore and other parts of the world. One of these projects was Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay for which the firm earned the Royal Institute of British Architects' Worldwide Design Award in 2005 and the President's Design Award in 2006.
Although Koh retired from DP Architects in 2004, he currently continues to serve as a senior consultant to the firm. Moreover, he remains passionate about his stamp and artefact collections, and continues his interest in art and heritage.
Born in Singapore.
Won the Dunlop Rubber Australia Pte Ltd Prize.
Graduated from University of Melbourne with Bachelor of Architecture.
Registered architect, Board of Architects, Singapore.
Co-founder, Design Partnership (now DP Architects).
Director, DP Architects.
President, Singapore Stamp Club.
Received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) for community service.
Named Friend of the Kreta Ayer Community Centre.
President, Association of Singapore Philatelists.
First Singapore signatory to sign the Roll of Distinguished Philatelists by the British Philatelic Federation.
Board member, Asian Civilisations Museum.
Received Grand Prix National Award, World Philatelic Exhibition, Canada.
Member, National Heritage Board.
Chairman, Singapore Philatelic Museum.
President, Federation of International Philately.
Chairman, Singapore Art Museum.
Received the Patron of the Arts Award.
Senior Consultant, DP Architects.
Board Member, LASALLE College of the Arts.
Deputy Chairman, Implementation Steering Committee, National Art Gallery, Singapore.
Received Royal Institute of British Architects’ Worldwide Design Award for Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
Chairman, Executive Committee, National Art Gallery, Singapore.
Received President’s Design Award for Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
Received Patron of Heritage Award.
Honorary President, Federation of International Philately, Switzerland.
Board member, VIVA Foundation.
Board Chairman, National Art Gallery, Singapore.
Received Distinguished Patron of Heritage Award for contributions to heritage, history and the arts.
Chairman, Istana Arts Collection Committee.
Received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Lintang) [Public Service Star (Bar)].
Board member, Visual Artists-in-Residence.
Board member, Legal Heritage Committee.
Board of Governors, Raffles Girls' School (Secondary).
TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.
In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.